Thursday, August 06, 2009

The breeches of Bussy D'Ambois

One of the great deaths in Jacobean drama is that of Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois: impelled by his own maniacal courage, which obliges him to disregard all warnings (both human and supernatural), not to answer his lady's summons, Bussy is ambushed in the bedchamber of his mistress by the bravoes hired by his cuckold, the Count of Montsurry. He chases them all out, killing one, then summons the Count to appear in his own quarrel, overpowers him, spares his life at the request of Tamyra, but then is shot from off-stage. Bussy resolves to die like the Emperor Vespasian, standing up, though not held up by menials, but propped up only by his sword.

All this amid some splendid or murky blank verse – Chapman at his rather mixed best:

.. I am up
Here like a Roman Statue; I will stand
Till death hath made me marble: O my fame

Live in despite of murder; take thy wings
And haste thee where the gray-eyed morn perfumes,
Her Rosie chariot with Sabaean spices,
Fly, where the evening from th’Iberean vales,
Takes on her swarthy shoulders, Hecate
Crowned with a grove of oaks: fly where men feel
The burning axletree: and those that suffer
Beneath the chariot of the Snowy Bear:
And tell them all that D’Ambois now is hasting
To the eternal dwellers; that a thunder
Of all their sigh together (for their frailties
Beheld in me) may quit my worthless fall
With a fit volley for my funeral.

But here’s a different telling of the death, which I came across in A pleasant treatise of witches their imps, and meetings, persons bewitched, magicians, necromancers, incubus, and succubus's, familiar spirits, goblings, pharys, specters, phantasms, places haunted, and devillish impostures : with the difference between good and bad angels, and a true relation of a good genius (1673). I don’t quite know where the anonymous author got this from: it seems to be a mix of recollections of the play, and a historical source unknown to me. This was probably The Amours of Solon, Socrates, Julius Caesar, Cato of Utica, D'Andelot, Bussy D'Amboyse newly translated out of French (1673), but EEBO does not have any page images yet (but notice the coincidence of dates, which makes me think it will prove the source of the story).

Henry the third King of France, had a brother called the Duke of Allenzon, who came to England formerly to be a suiter to Queen Elizabeth, in whose retinue was the Valiant Busidamboyes who took the Dukes part, between whom and the King was a perpetual feud. The King, therefore by nature timerous and suspicious, was always afraid of this valiant person, and after his return into France, devised several means to take him out of the way …

… there being a constant report at Court that Bussidamboyes was in favour with the Earl of Monsurrous wife, he sent for an Italian Negromancer, famous at that time, and called Triscalino. Of him he enquires if he could shew or declare to him, what Bussidamboyes was then doing, which the Magician after certain conjurations shewed him in a Glass, where was Bussidamboyes in bed with a Lady. Hereupon the King sent for his Courtiers, amongst whom was the Earl of Monsorrou at that time, and asked if they knew that Lady. The Earl much abased, replyed, it was his wife. Then said the King, I will have no Cuckolds to be my Courtiers. To which the Earl made answer, that to hinder what was done was not in his power, but that it was in the Kings, to give him leave to avenge himself, which he earnestly requested.

The King glad to be any ways rid of Bussidamboyes, gave his assent, and the Earl posted away immediately to his own house; and coming betimes in the morning to his wife, as she lay in bed, offered her the choice of three things, either a draught of Poyson, a Dagger to kill her self, or to write such a Letter as he would dictate to her. The miserable woman terrified with the thoughts of death, consented to the Latter; and, according to her husbands dictating, sent for Bussidamboyes, who suspected nothing, to come unto her. In the mean time the Earl concealed himself in the house, armed with six more, and behind the Curtains in her chamber. Bussidamboyes came not long after, and offering to go up stairs in his accustomed manner, was desired by a Page, set for that purpose, to leave his Spurs and his Sword below, because his Lady was ill, and the least noise disturbed her. This he did, not mistrusting what would follow; but as soon he entred the Chamber, the Lady gave a sign, and all rusht in upon him. Nevertheless, being of an undaunted courage, he took the first chair he found, and so behaved himself with that weapon, by reason of his great strength, that he kild two of them; and then being wounded in divers places, he leapt out of the window into the Garden. But fell by misfortune upon a pole that prop’t up a Vine, and there stuck fast by the Breeches, which the Conspirators perceiving, ran down and made an end of him there.”

Somehow, being caught by the trousers on a vine pole after jumping out of a window has a ring of truth to it – and of course Chapman reworked this ignominious end.

I got the purported portrait of Bussy from the French Wikipedia (it is a 19th century effort, but perhaps based on an earlier):

Chapman’s play was admired, and revived in the restoration period. I came across an allusion to it in James Blackwel’s splendidly malicious The Nativitie of Mr Will Lilly astrologically performed shewing how he hath lived, and what death he may probably die. For the satisfaction of astrologers and others (1660), where the writer congratulates himself:

“Let Mr Lilly tell me whether I have not dealt like a faithful friend by him, and as truly as Damboyse, and the Kings Brother did by each other in the Tragedy. Here are no Sycophantic tow’ring strains, nor have we flattered Lilly in hopes of reward, as he hath done so many to their ruine.”

This appears on the pages numbered 13-14 (it is a chaotically paginated pamphlet).

The allusion is to the scene at the end of Act 3 where Monsieur and Bussy tell one another exactly what they think – Monsieur denouncing Bussy as a slave to his own ‘cannibal valour’, Bussy telling his jealous patron that all the evil in the kingdom flows from his ‘political head’, and that he also has a breath that will ‘kill to that wall a spider’. It obviously struck people at the time, and rightly.

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